One of the many nice things about the industrial automation industry is the pace of change. It’s not that frenzied kind of change that you find on the Internet. With Internet technologies, you wake up every day not knowing if your product was obsoleted over night by some scruffy 17 year old working in his parent’s basement.
It’s not that we don’t have change in the Industrial Automation industry, we do. And that change is continuous but usually not rapid. Today the change is about making connections from automation devices go beyond controllers to all sorts of production systems, analysis engines and Enterprise applications. There’s work being done in many areas to achieve this, and in this article I am going to talk about three of them.
The first is standardization efforts. There is more and more standardization to speed the deployment of systems and provide easier delivery of machine data to supervisory systems beyond the factory floor.
The packaging industry is way ahead of a lot of other industries in its standardization efforts. Packaging machines come in all shapes and sizes. They sort, collect, wrap, box and manage every product imaginable from pills to water to disposable diapers. And what’s interesting about those kinds of machines is that they are an add-on to the production machinery. Because they are an add-on, there is little in terms of trade secrets to protect and more possibility for standardization among manufacturers. A tissue company, for example, keeps the formula to manufacture their tissues a secret. But the machinery to wrap it? Not so much.
So in the packaging industry, a bunch of folks got together in the early 2000s and started a standardization effort. After all, there are a lot of commonalities from one packaging machine to another. There are always drives, a sealer of some sort, conveyor control, probably a folder of some sort and so on. A lot of this stuff is pretty common.
So, to make all of that easy to integrate, these folks have defined the PackML standard. The primary objective of PackML is to bring a common “look and feel” and operational consistency to machines that make up a Packing Line or a Packaging Machine. This standard includes:
· Machine states and operational flow
· Overall Equipment Effectiveness (OEE) data
· Flexible recipe schemes and common SCADA or MES inputs
Machines that support PackML can be brought to market quicker and integrated faster than machines that don’t. HMIs, tools and PLC programs that support PackML have a common set of Tags that are used throughout the machine for common data making everything easier to integrate. This kind of effort is being repeated in many different industries, though most aren’t as well along as the packaging industry.
A second area that is simplifying data communications is the increasing use of XML – eXtended Markup Language. XML is a standard way of representing data that is part and parcel of a lot of Microsoft applications. It’s a mechanism for sending data from one system to another using ASCII tags that have beginning and ending tag headers like “<Flow_Rate>1.235<\Flow_Rate>.
The advantage of using this kind of communication is that a number of databases, applications, Excel, Word and other standard Microsoft applications can easily import this kind of data from factory floor devices. The downside is that the data is in ASCII, meaning that low resource devices are going to have a hard time saving and transmitting data in XML file format. Where 125 can be stored in a single byte, it costs 3 bytes in ASCII, plus all the characters for the tag name – however long that might be.
RTA is releasing a product to move PLC data out of Rockwell PLCs like ControlLogix, PLC5E, SLC 5/05s and MicroLogix and sending it to Excel using XML. It can move several hundred tags every second and is perfect for low speed, low volume, and low cost data archiving applications. You can find more information at http://www.rtaautomation.com/products/460/etcxml.html.
A third way that data integration is being simplified is the new OPC UA standard. OPC UA is the follow up to the OPC standard that we have known and loved for the last 15 or 20 years. OPC UA extends OPC to lots of additional platforms, adds cryptographic security like you use for online banking, and provides much more extensive use of data models.
For a quick and easy introduction to OPC UA you can get my book, OPC UA: The Basics, for under twenty dollars from Amazon. Just use the search term “OPC UA” to find it. But, as a thank you gift for reading my newsletter, I am going to send a free copy to the first 25 people who send an email with their mailing address to jrinaldi at rtaautomation dot com. Just put OPC UA in the subject line.
I started this article saying that the pace of change in Industrial Automation is generally pretty slow. I am going to close by saying that that statement is probably incorrect. The pace of change is increasing and our industry will change more in the next 5 years than it has in the last 30. More industry specific standards and data models, increasing use of standard internet type communication protocols and OPC UA are going to have a huge impact on how we do business going forward. I hope you’re ready for it.